Sermon for Third Sunday of Easter High Mass Sunday 10 April 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
It is a feature of the resurrection stories that Jesus is frequently not recognised. A central theme of all four gospels has been that discipleship begins with recognising Jesus for who he truly is. Now people who have known him for years don’t know who they’re meeting until some word or familiar gesture makes him known: most notably, of course, what we are doing here this morning, the breaking of the bread, in which the two disciples on the Emmaus road recognise him. Only now, for most of them, does discipleship truly begin, with the risen Christ. The resurrection is pivotal to their faith.
And in today’s gospel Jesus is recognised as a result of his instructions about fishing: an obvious enough parable of mission, gathering people into the church, the ship which carries us to heaven.
There are a couple of details in this story which always bother me when I hear it, so I hope you will forgive me for disposing of those first. There’s that number, 153 fish. Many explanations have been offered, and none is completely satisfactory. You will probably have heard that 153 represents all the known species of fish at the time. This is a nice idea but sadly without foundation.
St Jerome, who first suggests it, gives as his source ‘the poet Oppian’ who wrote in the second half of the second century. Unfortunately, his 3500-line didactic poem, á¼‰λιευτικÎ¬, (‘on fishing’), lists 157 types of fish (and Oppian also unhelpfully asserts that fish are ‘countless’). The elder Pliny, the Roman encyclopaedist who died in the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompei (and so is contemporary with the gospel writers), lists 104. St Augustine tried out some numerology at this point in his commentary on John (e.g. 153 is the sum of all the numbers up to and including 17, which is in turn taken to be significant for various, frankly, anachronistic reasons). But Augustine also suggested that the number is, in the words of our own Cedric Stephens, ‘a great mystery.’
It is probably best to receive this as (in capital letters) A Really Large Number, suggesting, together with the untorn net, the completeness and unity of those drawn in by the disciples’ mission. Or the number may have been introduced for verisimilitude, a ‘real’ number as observed by one present. I have a horrible suspicion that if we get to meet the Evangelist John in heaven he’ll tell us that, like me, he couldn’t count.
Then there’s the business of Peter’s swimming costume. Verse 7:
That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work [New Revised Standard Version translation: ‘naked’], and sprang into the sea.
That verse has been bugging me for years, but I only got around to looking into it properly in order to write this sermon. This is one of those moments which sorts out the scholars from the pious commentariat. The verb translated ‘put on’ [διαζÏŽννυμι] has a more specific meaning than ‘put on’ (in the NT it is only used by John, but elsewhere often enough). It is the same verb used by John of Jesus girding himself with a towel to wash the disciples’ feet, and that is what it means (‘tying around’, precisely like the priest tying his cincture or girdle [ζÏŽνη] around his alb). It helps if we think of that action here, because this is about ‘tucking in’ a garment. Peter is already wearing the item of clothing (called an á¼πενδÏτης, literally something ‘put on top’): this word is used of a fisherman’s working tunic. So Peter didn’t ‘put on his clothes’ to go swimming as we heard, but sensibly ‘girded his tunic’. The word translated ‘naked’ or ‘stripped for work’ (γυμνÏŒς) is often also used of people ‘lightly clad’, (it might suggest that he was wearing no loincloth under his tunic). He tucks his work-tunic into his belt (and remember the reference to a belt at the end of the passage) in order to swim unimpeded. That’s enough finicky commentary for this morning.
The breakfast which follows the large catch of fish provides a eucharistic echo (like the breaking of the bread on the road to Emmaus) in which Jesus is recognised. The repeated need for (and process of) recognition in these stories suggests that the resurrection is not just a return to earthly life. It is not just going on as we were before: Jesus has risen to new life beyond death. He is not as he was, but he is still who he was.
That, presumably, is the best clue we’re going to be given as to what new life beyond death means for those who follow him. And following is the point: the command ‘Follow me’ is all that Jesus feels the need to say to any of us; it is no accident that ‘follow me’ are his last recorded words in John’s gospel.
The concluding conversation with Peter (‘Do you love me? Feed my lambs’) should encourage us in our following. The triple question and answer allows Peter the opportunity to come back from his earlier triple denial of Jesus with three professions of love. Even denying the Lord can be forgiven; all our fallings-short and backslidings are reparable and the welcome is warm.
The opposite (and remedy) of failure is loving God and nourishing God’s people – ‘feed my sheep’. Jesus gives the care of his church to one who has let him down utterly: what we achieve in our own spiritual journey, or in helping other people to come nearer to God, is never from our own strength but from the love and faithfulness of God. We are simply asked to follow.
We are also reminded here (and this is surely difficult for increasingly affluent and self-sufficient western Christians) that there comes a time for every one of us when we cannot be self-sufficient, even if only in extreme old age. I certainly find it profitable to remember that I am never wholly self-sufficient, well before that happens to me.
For all of us it is our death, our final vulnerability, that gives meaning to our lives: all that we do is done on a trajectory from birth to death and the more aware we are of that the better we shall be at living now. If we believe that there is something else besides that death, then the command to ‘follow’ Jesus is all the more inviting, because it suggests the enlargement and generosity of life which God offers.
In the light of that focus, it is good to think about the sense in which we are not sufficient to ourselves. We are children of God and brothers and sisters one to another. None of us is, as Donne observed, ‘an island’.
Jesus, seeking to build life-giving relationships, wants us to know him and to help others to do so. He also knows that we, and they, need feeding. Our commitment to our faith is closely connected with those truths. If we are to be built up and seek to build others up, then our commitment will reflect how seriously we take that challenge to ‘follow’ and to ‘love’.